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'Expectations should be lowered': What a Democratic U.S. House means for higher ed

Students completing honors theses spend several months researching topics that relate to their fields.

Students completing honors theses spend several months researching topics that relate to their fields.

If you're a student who receives Pell Grants or is involved with research, you should pay attention during the next two years.

On Nov. 6, the Democratic Party won the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, if results hold, and it made many citizens hopeful for change.  

A recent area of controversy is the education system in the United States. With the new shift of power, some students and experts are becoming optimistic about what the future could hold for education policies and legislation.

“The new legislative session represents an opportunity for federal policymakers to enact equality-driven higher education policy,” said Amanda Roberson, assistant director of research and policy at the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

Roberson said the institute is hopeful the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate, still controlled by Republicans, can compromise and pass legislation that supports success in and access to higher education.

Roberson wants the 116th Congress to build on recent momentum, namely the introductions of the PROSPER Act and the Aim Higher Act in the House.

There are several things Congress needs to implement to change the higher education system, Roberson said.

The first is to increase the maximum federal Pell Grant award and to make the process simpler for lower-income students by implementing the Auto Zero estimated family contribution, which would automatically qualify applicants for the maximum federal Pell Grant if they meet certain income criteria. 

Roberson said a data network should be implemented to help students make informed college decisions, and people who have been incarcerated should be able to receive the Pell Grant, too.

The implementation of these policies still may not be easy, even with a Democratic House majority.

“Expectations should be lowered,” said UNC political science professor Sarah Treul-Roberts.

While the Democratic Party will be able to control agenda-setting, any legislation still has to go through the Republican-controlled Senate and White House. Treul-Roberts said Democratic education legislation will be near impossible to move past the President’s desk. 

“I think if the Democrats focus on education, it will be to force Republicans to take votes against popular programs and policies,” she said.

Treul-Roberts said she fears the Democrats will not focus on education legislation, at least at first. Instead, she thinks they will try to focus on legislation that has a higher chance of reaching a compromise, like infrastructure.

Marc Hetherington, a political science professor at UNC, said it will be hard to get education bills passed, but it's not just about the Senate being Republican and the House being Democratic. Regardless of the party majority of either house over the last eight to ten years, little legislation has been passed, he said.

He does, however, think there is potential for change as far as funding for education.

“If you’re looking for something that might tangibly change, it may be that we will see Democrats in a better position to negotiate with Senate Republicans and the Trump administration on spending in support of education,” Hetherington said.

He said appropriation bills, or spending bills, need to be passed to fund the government, regardless of what the funding is for. The Democratic Party is known for pushing increased funding for education, while Republicans are more fiscally conservative on the issue, he said. 

Because of this, it is likely the change the public will see in terms of education is the amount of funding allotted to improving it.

Hetherington said the best outcome of the new Democratic House majority will be focusing on research.

“One of the things the United States lags behind the rest of the world is on investment in basic research,” Hetherington said.

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Over the past 15 years, research at UNC has quadrupled and become one of the biggest research universities in the country. Hetherington said increased funding on education will make it easier for UNC faculty to win grant awards from organizations like the National Science Foundation. 

Roberson said she hopes everyone can eventually have access to education and be able to succeed regardless of race or financial constraints.

“We urge policymakers to pursue policies that foster increased college access and degree completion for low-income students, students of color and adult learners,” Roberson said.